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Friday, April 26, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fresh Water - By The Bag -- Invention Will Help World's Dry Regions, Millionaire Says

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Fresh water floats in salt water. So why not bag it and tow it from wet areas to parched ones? In Puget Sound this week, Terry Spragg is demonstrating how to do it. A tugboat is pulling two bags, each filled with 770,000 gallons of water, from Port Angeles to Seattle.

An entrepreneur who says water is one of the keys to world peace wants to fill 500-foot-long fabric bags with water from an Olympic Peninsula watershed and drag the bags through the ocean to slake the thirst of the West Coast, especially California.

The giant bladders, each of which holds 4.5 million gallons, or as much water as 45,000 Seattleites use in a day, would form a flexible "fabric water pipeline" through the ocean.

If the process works, water from a river in Turkey could be bagged and dragged cheaply to parched Israel and the Gaza Strip. The world would become less reliant on expensive pipelines and aqueducts. And water could be drawn from rivers just before it spills into the ocean, instead of upstream where salmon need it to survive.

So preaches Terry Spragg, 54, a California millionaire who has spent the past eight years, and almost all of his money, single-mindedly dreaming of how to float bags of water around the world.

"There's plenty of water on this earth, it's just not always in the right place," said Spragg, who was raised in Seattle. "If I can tow it from here to there, people will buy it."

Eight years of work by Spragg will be on display this weekend, when two smaller demonstration bags, each filled with 770,000 gallons of water, will be pulled by tugboat from Port Angeles to Seattle.

The bags look like partially submerged, skinny blimps. Larger than a Boeing 747 jet, they are made of material similar to the tough fabric that lines the bottom of river rafts. Linked together by large zippers, the bags float at the surface when filled, because fresh water is lighter than salt water.

The two demonstration bags are due in Elliott Bay by Monday.

Towing bags of water around the world is cheaper and environmentally cleaner than carrying the water in tankers or building pipelines, Spragg said. There's not much capital cost, although he would not say how much a bag costs. The system is flexible; water can be carried to and from almost anywhere in the world.

The water could be used for drinking or industrial uses but probably would be too expensive to be used for agriculture.

In countries such as Jordan, which has pumped dry most of its underground water reservoirs, or Saudi Arabia, where some desalination plants have cost billions of dollars, delivery of fresh water could ease tensions between neighboring countries, Spragg says.

And don't just believe him, Spragg adds. "Wars of the next century will be over water," warned the World Bank last year.

The U.S. State Department now is interested in the "Spragg Bag," specifically for its applications in the Middle East. The World Bank itself is reviewing Spragg's proposal to deliver water from the Manavgat River in Turkey across the Mediterranean to Israel and the water-starved Gaza Strip.

All of this started 20 years ago, when Spragg became obsessed with the notion of dragging icebergs from Antarctica to California, then dispensing the fresh water when the ice melted.

Later, an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a prototype for a giant water bag. Spragg quit his job buying real estate, sold all his properties, and began peddling his plan to use "Spragg Bags" to water the planet.

"It sounds a little nuts, but when people see it they believe it," he said. "They start thinking: `Well, why not?' "

Not everybody is so excited. Spragg has applied for two water rights to draw up to 130 billion gallons a year from the outfall of the Cushman power plant on the Skokomish River. That's twice as much water as all of Seattle uses in a year.

Though the water currently spills directly into Hood Canal after passing through the power plant, the Skokomish Indian Tribe has been arguing for decades that the water should be allowed to run in its natural river bed, and not be diverted to the power plant at all.

Spragg's plan is "totally absurd" and "alien to our culture and beliefs," Skokomish Tribal Council Chairman Joseph Pavel has told the state.

Spragg has offered the tribe $4 million a year for the water. He also said he would pay $4 million a year each to the city of Tacoma (which operates the power plant) and Mason County.

The entrepreneur also admits he faces a public-relations battle over exporting Washington water to California. The prospect of milelong chains of water bags linked end to end being dragged through Hood Canal may not thrill all the locals, either, he admitted.

But Spragg doesn't have much patience for naysaying.

"If people have an open mind and listen, they'll see this has environmental benefits," he said.

For example, the Simpson Kraft Mill in Tacoma uses 20 million gallons of water a day. If the mill buys the water from Spragg, there would be 20 million more gallons of water available every day upstream in the Green River watershed for use by fish or people, he said.

"It all makes sense," he said. "But if it doesn't work out here, I'll go to Alaska to get the water if I have to."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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